When Pete Wilson, then a U.S. Senator, was campaigning for governor in 1990, he sought the endorsement of Friends of the River, an influential environmental organization and the largest river conservation group in the state.
Wilson, then a moderate Republican, had been a key vote in support of adopting federal Wild and Scenic status for the Tuolumne River, one of the most treasured wild rivers in the West, running through a canyon where water developers were planning a staircase of new dams.
The endorsement request set up an internal debate at F.O.R., which normally identified with Democratic office holders, and Diane Feinstein was Wilson’s gubernatorial opponent. Wilson’s action had saved the Tuolumne from dam destruction and the organization ultimately rewarded his support with a key endorsement that some argued helped him narrowly defeat Feinstein. (Full disclosure – this writer was then executive director of Friends of the River).
The dilemma of who to endorse underscored a key reality of both politics and public interest campaigns – black and white are one-dimensional colors while most social progress takes place in a spectrum of multiple hues.
That’s why we were disturbed by the annual political report card released by Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA), the county’s largest environmental group, but one that sometimes appears to operate within a too-narrowly rigid ideological framework.
The SCCA report card grades elected officials, including members of the Sonoma City Council, on their environmental performance and responsiveness to the public. That can be a useful metric for evaluating office-holders, if it is done fairly and thoughtfully. But judging by this year’s report card, the SCCA sometimes fails to provide more than superficial, one-dimension analysis of officials it grades.
Not long ago, the SCCA gave former council member and mayor Joanne Sanders a ‘D’ despite a record on environmental issues more often than not worthy of praise. Her leading sin seemed to be her pro-business bias.
The latest SCCA report card demoted former mayor Ken Brown, a consistently solid environmental vote, to a ‘B/B-minus’ because he opposed the Hotel Limitation Measure and was thus guilty of “favoring big money interests.”
Suggesting that support for a West Napa Street hotel, that would be a LEED-certified, pedestrian-focused, in-fill development with a living-wage contract, is somehow anti-environment is baffling.
The same report card graded new mayor Tom Rouse with a ‘D’ because he “Follows a pro-business agenda, (is) disconnected from the community and frequently out-of-town on personal business.”
Rouse told the Index-Tribune that no one from Conservation Action has ever called him to discuss environmental issues, but that on Friday, just after the report card was released, someone called his wife, a consistent donor to SCCA, to ask for more money.
We would suggest that if SCCA wants more influence in Sonoma Valley politics, they could start by engaging directly with the elected officials they are grading, addressing their interests and concerns, debating the issues first-hand, and stop treating them as two-dimensional stereotypes.
Right now, we’re inclined to give the SCCA report card an ‘F.’